Monday, March 29, 2010

Stand By For Hugs

My favorite lesson from teacher training last year is the one we learned during the first fifteen minutes of the first day.

We were all a little nervous, I think, at least I know I was. Here was a group of accomplished yoga practitioners and teachers ranging in age from 22 to 60, from Toronto, London, New York City, Los Angeles, Aspen, Whistler, B.C., Mexico. Oh, and Washington Island, Wisconsin.

After introductions, our teacher asked us to come into Tadasana, Mountain Pose. Beginning with the feet, he cued our alignment, asking us to rock forward and back from heel to toes, feeling for equal and balanced weight distribution with all four corners of the soles as we quieted the motion. Then a slight lift of the inner arches, the sensation of the calves pressing forward as the thighs pressed back, the tailbone drawn forward to the pubis as the navel and low ribs drew back into the spine.

He then asked us to gently tilt our heads forward and backchin towards chest, then back of the head toward shoulder bladesuntil the head found its balanced center on top of the cervical spine. Add broadened chests, fingernails magnetized to the earth and deep, Ujjayi inhale and exhales, and I doubt there were eight better-looking mountains that side of Rockies.

Then, for the first of many, many, many times, our teacher took our mountains and moved them. He walked up to a lovely, experienced, Iyengar-trained classmate who stood with beautiful balance and symmetry, so perfect, so...stiff, and hugged her. He hooked his chin over her shoulder and wrapped his arms around her, bear-hug style. He stood that way for at least a minute. I watched her eyes mist and her face soften. Then he stepped back and smiled. She hadn’t moved a muscle, not one muscle, but she was soft and open and happy. And standing in Tadasana for the first time.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Please join me on a trip to the Land of Stress. It’s not too far away and the fare is cheap. I can’t promise comfortable accommodations, but I can share some travel tips and tell you what to watch for along the way. It is a safari; there will be animals. Watch them closely.

While the emotional landscape that causes you stress may be different than mine, your best friend’s or your life partner’s, the physiological reaction it causes is generally the same: shallow breathing, rapid heart-rate and an invisible, powerful hormonal release.

Just like other mammals, stress is the finger that pushes your brain’s primitive “fight or flight” button. Once the button is pushed, the body is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, which provides the energy to respond to the crisis. But what if your stress is the result of losing a job or having an argument? I suppose you could punch something or run away really fast, but that’s not always practical. More than likely you sit and think about your problem(s), stewing in your own excessive hormonal juices, wondering why you suddenly feel the urge to eat Kit Kat bars or cry.

Now take a look around. There are zebras and elephants and water buffalo in the distance. From time to time they, too, experience stress, like when competing for territory, food or a mate. But unlike humans, once the crisis has passed, they instinctively know how to flush lingering hormones from their bodies.

They shake. Trunk to tail, ears to hooves, tusks to rump. They shake off their stress-leftovers and go back to grazing, side by side.

You don’t have to travel to the Land of Stress to know it’s a physical as well as emotional state. Whether you shed lingering stress in a vigorous sun salutation or whirl in a vibrating dance, creating your own cleansing ritual restores calm and ease to both body and mind.

Leave it to nature to shake us up with wisdom.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hip Hip Hooray

In yin yoga it’s called Shoelace Pose. In yang styles, it’s Fire Log. In sanskrit it’s Agnistambhasana. In my practice it’s known as Goodbye Mrs. Williams.

Think of an expanded Sukhasana (Easy Pose), with the lower legs (knee to foot) stacked one on top of the other, like two logs. Once the legs are positioned you fold forward from the groins, bringing your hands, or perhaps forearms, to the floor in front. (Yoga Journal’s website has a step-by-step description of the pose’s finer points and nuances).

Shoelace-Fire Log-Agnistambhasana-Goodbye Mrs. Williams is a hip-opener. The hip and pelvic girdle’s intricate web of muscles, fascia, connective tissue and ligaments specialize in holding tension, trapping pain and restricting movement. Hip openers, especially this one, are like skeleton keys that unlock these hidden caches of discomfort, and I don’t mean just physical ones.

Depending on your anatomical structure and degree of flexibility, Shoelace-etc. Pose varies in intensity. The first time I held the pose yin-like, for several minutes, it felt like electrical charges were firing deep into both hips. It was like hovering on the edge between noooo and yessss. Three minutes into the pose, the voice of Mrs. Williams, my nasty 5th grade teacher, reprimanded me one last time for misspelling Illinois (Illinios) on my year-end report. And then she took her black-framed glasses and metal rulers and left for good.

You’d be surprised at what strange, hurtful and occasionally silly stuff we carry locked in our tight hips. Spend some time in Agnistambhasana and you may release your own Mrs. Williams, whether or not your spelling improves.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Good news for anyone under fifty reading this:

You’ve got a lot to look forward to.

Good news for anyone over fifty reading this:

Well done, brothers and sisters.

I don’t know why you’d want to, but if you’re looking for someone who’s afraid of aging, look for someone who didn’t get the memo about points, years and the accrual thereof.

When I was growing up we saved S&H Green Stamps. (So did you, if you’re over fifty). Every time my mom came home from the grocery store, I grabbed the stamps she’d earned with her purchase, ran for the fulfillment book, found a blank page and commenced to lick.

What was more satisfying than a full S&H Green Stamps Book? Each one of them stuffed with hope, history, dreams and the promise of a big pay-off: The moment you pulled your prize off the shelf at the fulfillment center.

But really—and you know where I’m going with this—the pay-off began the day you picked up a blank book. You dug past canned corn to pull strips of stamps from the grocery bag bottom. You looked forward to the stamp’s sicky-sweet taste on your tongue. You slowly filled each book, earning points, saving for one prize, then starting again.

If you know someone who’s afraid of aging, get them a copy of this memo:

You’re born with a blank book. You earn a stamp for every day you live. Your job is to dig, rip, lick & affix until your book is bulging, uneven and gloriously messy. You get extra points for popsicle stains and taped-together covers.

Once you’ve earned 18,250 stamps you may puff your chest and begin to strut, waving your book. Not there yet? Be patient, keep licking.

Monday, March 15, 2010


After waxing (un)poetic on the yogic high road of non-striving it’s only fair to acknowledge: There are times when one looks in the mirror and the image looking back is not one’s usual calm, rose-sniffing self. Call her whatever you’d like - alter ego, inner imp. If (s)he’s winking, I suggest you warm up.

It happens to me when the triathlon bug bites. Scratching the itch involves lots of time, focus and expensive products. I’d like to say it’s effortless: the miles, the hills, the waves. But it’s work, and sometimes (usually) it gets ugly before it feels beautiful.

Sound familiar? You too might occasionally want to take your body out for a spin, 0-60, top down, radio cranked, just to see what s(he’ll) do. It’s like a reward for all the careful prep, the gradual build, the quiet, centered moments. I’m not suggesting you throw safety and common sense to the wind. I’m saying that every now and then, it’s okay to step on the gas when you come to a hill. If your body’s begging for a cruise on the wild side, it’s probably because you’re ready.

If you’re a runner, it’s the day you push through your milage or speed barriers. For cyclists it’s cranking to the top of the tallest hill, then riding back down to do it again. In your yoga practice it may be the days you sweat through a Bikram class, flow through your own energetic sequence or change your view of the world with challenging inversions.

You’re still on the high road, but this one’s got climbs and curves. You’ll be too busy to look in the mirror but next time you do, wink back.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

With Apologies, from the Bad Poet's Society

There was once a yogini named Cloe

whose postures were really quite showy,

She could revolve a half moon from 11 to noon,

but sitting still made her really quite screwy.

Her teacher spoke of the stillness within,

that when practicing yoga one can always begin

to peel away fluff and return to real stuff,

no effort, no drama, all win.

Cloe listened but to herself she would snicker,

give me bakasana with a side crow kicker.

Her mind did protest: Who am I if not best?

(But already some doubt was a-flicker).

Our true selves, her teacher remarked,

can surely tell light from the dark.

It’s all about presence and not so much pretense,

less effort, less striving, more walk in the park.

So enjoy the mechanics, the poses, the sweat,

but remember these words just in case you forget.

If you dance through life’s forest (no pressure, no contest),

when you reach the far side, your true self you’ll have met.

Cloe nodded - It could have some merit,

to sit quietly pondering this rare bit.

“I like what you’ve said, it’s gone straight to my head.

Now show me that pose nicknamed upside-down ferret.”

Monday, March 8, 2010

Undercover Breather

I haven’t owned a television for a long time, but once a week I walk next door to watch CBS’s Sunday Morning with my neighbor, June. If you indulge, you know it’s a shamelessly feel-good human interest kind of program, with some silence and nature at the end. I always learn about fifty things I didn’t know, though some, like the reality television shows advertised, I’d happily remain in the dark about.

I’m not sure what the word reality means when it’s right next to the word television, but I do want to say there are people I know and like who watch shows like The Bachelor, Project Runway and Survivor. (Okay, maybe not Survivor).

You think I’m about get judgmental. Nope. I’m proposing a new show: So You Think You Can Breathe.

Each week the show opens with several contestants receiving some basic pranayama instruction. Then, while wearing 3-D glasses, they’re coached to take full, deep, conscious breaths while potentially stress-inducing situations are simulated on a giant screen.

The fun begins when the contestants leave the studio to go about their daily lives. Each is fitted with a tiny camera and wears a heart-rate monitor that also records respirations. They can easily switch off the equipment to protect privacy whenever they choose. And that’s it. No races, no gimmicks, no artificially set-up scenes. Just player, life and breath.

At the end of one week, the contestants come back to the studio. The data is compared. The television audience gets to see clips of each player in several different settings like stuck in traffic or at the computer, while their recorded respirations are played in the background.

The winner is the one with the highest number of full, deep, conscious breaths regardless of setting. The prize is incalculable. Ready to play?

Thursday, March 4, 2010


We know we’re taller in the morning than we are at night, after the compressive stresses of the day have weighed in. (See Monday’s blog). Now imagine what a day’s worth of interaction, decision-making and experience-processing does to our emotions.

Emotional compression is just as natural a reaction to the stresses of daily life as is gravity-driven physical compression. You may wake in the morning feeling expanded and energetic only to sense the day’s events slowly eroding your optimism and sense of well-being. Add gray skies (yup, we get ‘em in the Bahamas, too) and occasional illness, whether minor or serious, and it gets tough to hang on to happy.

Unless you’ve got a pair of bookends.

Whether you think of them as mini-meditations or simply reflective moments, bookends are a way to bracket each day with conscious intention. Here’s how they might look for you:

After waking, sit quietly for five minutes or more. Inhale a sense of expansiveness into your whole inner being. Welcome light through every pore and feel for a cellular shimmer. Just as you might at the beginning of your yoga practice, set a gentle intention for your day, like: laugh. Now take an emotional snapshot of how you feel right now and file it somewhere; you’ll come back to it.

Before going to bed, sit quietly for five minutes or more. Inhale and expand. Welcome peace into your body and mind. Release the day. Gaze at the morning’s emotional snapshot until you recognize yourself. Sweet dreams.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tall Drink of Water

Tomorrow morning when you first wake up, lie flat in bed or on your mat and enjoy a full body stretch. Feel tall? Maybe even taller than you felt the night before? You are.

After a night of sleep has allowed time for fluids to rehydrate disks and joints, we humans start the day about 8mm, or .3 inches taller. But before you think about buying longer jeans, remember gravity. Throughout the day, gravity gradually compresses the cartilage separating the bones of the vertebrae and joints. Like a sponge, water and synovial fluid are squeezed out every time we sit, stand or move. There are other contributors too, like how we hold our bodies upright in space (posture) and how we use those bodies to perform daily activities (muscle tension and imbalances).

Yoga, particularly restorative, lying-down postures, can mitigate this daily, progressive scrunch. If you ever get antsy at the end of a practice or class, ready to bolt to your next activity, consider the benefits your body receives when you lie quietly in savasana, deep relaxation pose. Imagine your vertebral disks plumping with water, your knees and shoulders receiving vital, restorative fluids. Add the gift of a gravity-free break to the soothing balm of a quiet mind.

You can probably keep the same jeans, but you might end the day feeling as tall as you did when it started.